Intelligence Scandals: The Politics of Oversight

March 29, 2014–Today’s news is that Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who currently serves as the chairman of the House oversight committee, is going to retire to become a radio talk show host. Rogers cites his frustrations at accomplishing anything in Congress, and believes he can contribute more as a media pundit. Interesting. On a number of levels.

Just to recapitulate: Mike Rogers has driven the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) exactly where he wants it to go. And where he has gone is into the pocket of the intelligence mavens. Rogers, an FBI special agent before he became a congressman, seems never to have met an intelligence project he did not like. Whether it was CIA drones, NSA dragnet eavesdropping, or whatever, Mike Rogers was for it all. He acquiesced in the intelligence community’s purposeful evasion of oversight, its hookwinking of Congress right down to refusal to discuss even the legal basis for drone strikes that target American citizens. Instead he needled intelligence officials to increase their use of drones. At the height of the Snowden revelations Rogers appeared on TV with former NSA/CIA spy chief Michael Hayden to gush about how he would like to throttle the whistleblower. Where, over in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein has finally rebelled under the weight of the spies’ excesses (see “Senator Feinstein Comes out of the Closet,” March 11, 2014), at HPSCI Mike Rogers made sure his committee made no investigation at all of the CIA’s hostile interrogation techniques.

Moreover Rogers has operated in a permissive environment. With an ironclad majority in the House, HPSCI-sponsored legislation was assured of passage. Only a less-permissive Senate stood in the way of Rogers’s pet projects becoming law. Until Snowden that is. In the Republican-dominated House last summer, congressmen outraged at the NSA dragnet came within a handful of votes of defunding the National Security Agency. James Sensenbrenner, the man who wrote the provision the NSA has used to justify its dragnet, has disavowed his legislation and wants to repeal it.

Now Mike Rogers is frustrated because he can’t accomplish anything. Kind of like the kid at the schoolyard who, failing to win his dispute over interference with the last shot, picks up his marbles and heads home.

This would be amusing except that it is calculated. As it happens, the provision Jim Sensenbrenner authored, whether or not it is repealed, is scheduled to expire next year unless it is renewed. A whole lot of politics is going to revolve around that fight. Senate passage will be dicey. The House is no longer a done deal. The high tech corporations, stung by the effect of the NSA dragnet on their bottom lines and international sales, are quite likely to lobby against the program with which they have been working for years. Public pressure will be important. My guess is that Mike Rogers calculates he can help mobilize the public to demand the extension of the intrusive eavesdropping. Mike Rogers can “save” the NSA dragnet. Now that would be an accomplishment!